Date of Award

Spring 2021

Project Type


Program or Major


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy

First Advisor

Cristy Beemer

Second Advisor

Christina Ortmeier-Hooper

Third Advisor

Deborah Kinghorn


This dissertation is an archival study of the works of Viola Spolin who is considered by many to be the founding mother of improvisational theater. During her life she published Improvisation for the Theater which is essential reading for anyone interested in doing improvisational theater as well as Theater Games for The Classroom where she adapted some of her techniques and games to an educational setting outside of theater. Along with these works, I was able to examine two of her unpublished works, a handbook on education and What’s Your Score? as well as various notes, correspondences and interviews housed at Northwestern University’s Charles Deering Memorial Library Special Collections. In so doing, I have composed a picture of Viola Spolin yet unseen. Using three essentials of theater games as theoretical pillars (Focus, Side Coaching, and Evaluation) as established by Spolin in Theater Games for The Classroom, I will argue that, like the work of Paulo Friere or bell hooks, Viola Spolin’s improvisational pedagogy is worthy of reclamation for the field of composition. I argue this because I believe Spolin’s work can create classrooms in which students experience the autonomy of discoveries that feel organic and relevant to their own lives through collaboration that builds on the unique individual identity of each student. Spolin’s work gives us a different model of the teacher, that of Side Coach, that uses description rather than prescription to work with students in achieving these organic moments of discovery. Finally, I argue that looking to Improvisational methods of evaluation or assessment can help us become more fair to more students by involving students in the goal setting process. Any one of these contributions would be enough to warrant inclusion in the pantheon of composition theorists we as a discipline use to guide our teaching and scholarship. All three together prove without any doubt that Spolin’s work is worthy of reclamation for our classrooms.